History of St Mary's Church
The Church of St Mary the Virgin is a grade II listed building and was completely rebuilt in the fourteenth century and restored in the nineteenth century. The church is of coursed flint construction with Kentish rag-stone quoins, plinths, and other detailing. The tooling of some of this rag-stone, particularly the porch quoins, is indicative of it having been reused from an earlier Saxon chapel. In 1883 St Mary’s was completely restored and the small vestry constructed on the south side of the chancel. In 2015 a free-standing extension (The Cloisters) was built’ linked to the main building by a covered walkway.
The church of St Mary the Virgin replaced the chapel of an Anglo Saxon lord. A ‘chapel at Stanstede’ is first explicitly mentioned in the Textus Roffensis (The Tome of Rochester), which was compiled at Rochester between 1122 and 1124 from earlier Anglo-Saxon documents.
Stansted is mentioned as a chapel dependent on the church at Wrotham, which paid sixpence a year in chrism fees to Rochester cathedral. It has been argued that this sum preserves an Anglo Saxon custom, and gives further evidence for the chapel’s pre-conquest origins.
Stansted church is not included in the list of churches contributing to the ‘Taxation’ of Pope Nicholas IV made between 1288 and 1291 so it was probably still a chapel at that time. Stansted next appears in the documentary record on October 8th, 1312, when John de Hynton took refuge there.
Later in the century, Archbishop Islip (1349-66) decreed that it was the duty of the Vicar of Wrotham to appoint the chaplain for the chapel of Stansted, leaving the locality with the power only to choose their sacrist [an official in charge of sacred vessels, vestments,etc.] Islip’s decree is unlikely to have been intended to advance the pastoral care of the congregation: it was more probably made to place the revenues of the church on a more formal footing, for the benefit of the vicar at Wrotham and ultimately, the archbishop. The spur for this reform may have been the establishment of baptismal and burial rights at Stansted, implied by the explicit statement that the new chaplain should have the right to administer all the sacraments and to exercise the cure of souls.
Islip’s decree appears to have done little harm to the fortunes of Stansted church, and may even have provided the financial basis for its complete rebuilding as it is probable that the church was built sometime in the 14th century using materials from the Saxon chapel. The church is of a single phase of construction, excepting the vestry and other alterations of 1883. Aside from its coherent form and fabric, the key piece of evidence is the northern capital of the chancel arch, which demonstrates that the aisle arcade is contemporary with the construction of the nave and chancel.
In St Mary’s belfry hangs what is thought to be the oldest bell within the district. Cast sometime between 1418 and 1440 it bears a Latin inscription, which translated means “His name is John”.
Civil War and the Commonwealth
Stansted church was separated from Wrotham in 1647 by an ordinance of Parliament and became an independent parish. At this time a second bell was provided – it is engraved “William Hatch made me in 1656”.
The church reverted in 1660 at the Reformation of King Charles II and was reincorporated into Wrotham, returning to the status of a dependent chapel for another two centuries, until 1846.
The pews date from 1855. Many of the furnishings within the church – except the rood screen – were probably installed between 1875 and 1883.
The church has a mixture of Decorated and Perpendicular windows, which are post-medieval in date and were installed during the church’s 1883 restoration: fragments of the originals are preserved in the churchyard wall. The only surviving original windows are a single quatrefoil light in the west wall of the aisle and a series of small rectangular openings in the tower’s upper stages.
The two lead-glazed ceramic memorial plaques reset into the south elevation in the vicinity of the extension doorway are rare examples of their type. They are the work of the Wrotham Potters, who were active between 1612 and 1739. They record the deaths of two children of Edward Woodden, constable to the Hundred of Wrotham who served in that capacity with Jacob Heath in the year 1636.
The oldest tombstones in the churchyard date from 1715. One gravestone belongs to the author and composer William Edward Hickson (1803-1870) whose words feature in the English national anthem. Sir Sydney Waterlow (1822-1906) who was a commissioner at the Crystal Palace Exhibition and was a director of the Union Bank of London is buried in the churchyard. In 1872 Sir Sydney became Lord Mayor of London and in 1887 built Trosley Towers. His son, Sir Philip Waterlow (1847-1931) who lived at Trosley Towers and who built Fairseat Chapel is also buried in the churchyard.
Note: Further information on William Edward Hickson, Sir Sydney Waterlow and Sir Philip Waterlow can be found under the ‘people – luminaries’ section of the website.
In 1846, in the first year of the Incumbency of Samuel George Booth White, the St Mary’s Church tower was rebuilt. As part of the works the chancel of the church was thoroughly repaired and the roof of the nave was ‘ripped and ceiled’. It is possible that the church was tiled with Kent clay peg tiles at this time although it could have taken place at a later date. The tiles are are still in use today.
At the same time Samuel White built a Rectory House to replace the old one which had been demolished.
Kelly’s Directory for 1891 records that the interior was re-pewed in 1855, and in 1865 a vestry was built principally at the cost of the late Jonathan Rigg Esq. and considerable improvements in the interior were made during the years 1875-1878: in 1882-3 the buttresses on the south side were rebuilt, a third bell placed in the tower, the seats altered and two stained windows inserted.
The building has been listed as Grade II by Historic England. The listing details are as follows:
“Completely rebuilt c.1400, restored in C19. Coursed rubble stone. Plain tiled roofs. West tower, nave with north aisle, chancel. 3 stage west tower with diagonal buttresses. Low broach spire. Rectangular belfry openings. Tall lancet window on 1st storey on the west side of the tower over pointed arched doorway, with drip-mould over. Boarded doors with strap-hinges. 2 bay nave with pair of 2-light mullioned windows, to left flat-headed, to right pointed-arched, both with drip-molds over, to south. Single flat-headed 2-light window to north. 1 bay chancel with flat-headed windows to north and south. Pointed-arched window to east. All tracery restored, Interior: original tower arch, 2 bay north aisle and chancel arch, all on octagonal piers. Hollow chamfers on arches. Wooden chancel screen with ogee quatrefoils, possibly predating present church. Rafter roofs.”
Following the very heavy losses of WWI the names of the fallen were recorded within the church and on the War memorial. Thankfully, the church escaped damage during WW2 although there was one near miss.
On 31st August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, a Messerschmitt 110 crash-landed in the field to the east of the Church, close to the Court Lodge swimming pool. The co-pilot had been mortally wounded and the pilot was arrested. The whole incident was investigated by Mark Charnley, a former pupil of Stansted school when he was 13 and he wrote an account called ‘The One Behind the Church’.
Note: Details of this incident can be found under the ‘Events’ section.
In 1992, the existing three bells were removed, refurbished and tuned at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London. Together with the refurbishment of the existing church bells, three new bells were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry between 1991-92. This work was part of the Bell Restoration project which included a Bell Walk from Stansted to Whitechapel in 1991. Following this epic undertaking the detail of the bells at St Mary’s are as shown in the illustration.
Note: Comprehensive information on the Bell Restoration project is available in the ‘Events’ section.
On October 15th 2015 the new extension to St Marys, the Cloisters, was officially opened and consecrated by the Bishop of Rochester.
The need for an extension was first raised by the Rector, Chris Noble in 2006. He and the Parochial Church Council wanted to develop the existing church and the community life that centred on it through an initiative to provide a ministry for mothers and toddlers as well as for the elderly and their carers. This required a new meeting space with toilets and a kitchen. The feasibility, planning, and fundraising stages were all complex and protracted and it was not until 2014 that construction started. Over 119 burials were exhumed during the works but neither remains of the previous Saxon church nor any other significant finds were discovered.
Fundraising for the project fell into three equal parts: grants and individual donations; project-specific giving by parishioners; and fundraising events such as annual bike rides, quiz nights and social events. The Cloisters annual sponsored bike ride celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018. This event starts and finishes at Stansted village hall and offers a choice of three rides through the quiet leafy lanes and charming villages of the North Downs for up to 500 cyclists. In 2018 the proceeds were split between the Cloisters (£3,712) and the Heart of Kent Hospice (£4,646) at Aylesford.
The total project cost for the Cloisters building was £566,000 and this was fully paid in 2018.
During this period Stansted school had closed and so part of the project brief could not be met; however, the modern audio visual facilities in the building have attracted new users and exhibitions without detracting from the use of the existing village hall.
Note: Further information on the development and construction of the ‘Cloisters’ is available via the main index page for St Mary’s Church.
Inscriptions – Further Information
A transcription and index of the monumental inscriptions in the church and churchyard has been produced by the Kent Archaeological Society and is available via the following link for the Kent Archaeology website: